Harvard-incubated Emulate aims to solve biotech drug failure woes by fusing microchips with human tissue

A lung-on-chip, with living human lung and blood vessel cells (courtesy of Emulate)
A lung-on-chip, with living human lung and blood vessel cells (courtesy of Emulate)

When a promising biotech startup launches, it’s often years—and many millions of dollars invested—before anyone knows if their treatment is really going to work.

“Right now the amount of drugs that fail in the clinic is unbelievable,” said James Coon, chief executive of Cambridge startup Emulate Inc.

Today, the company announces the next step toward commercialization of technology known as “organs on a chip”—a computer microchip lined with living cells—that aims to let scientists fully vet drug candidates much earlier in development. Emulate announced it has raised its first round of funding, a $12 million Series A round, following the incubation of the technology for the past five years at the Wyss Institute at Harvard (the work has been funded so far with $40 million grant funding, most of it from DARPA).

Coon said Emulate could commercialize the technology as soon as 2016, which could have a major impact on how the early-stage biotechnology process works. “It’s going to have a huge effect,” he said. “During drug discovery, you’ll be able to look at [organs on chips] and see whether this is not a good therapeutic class of compounds, or not a good target, before you’ve spent millions and millions of dollars.”

The technology works by mimicking human physiology in different organs-on-chips—such as lung, liver, intestine, kidney, skin, eye, and blood-brain-barrier. The technology consists of miniaturized devices created with microchip manufacturing that contain tiny hollow channels lined by living human cells and tissues.

Using the organs-on-chips, scientists will be able to predict the responses of humans to medicines, chemicals, and diseases more accurately than through animal testing, according to Emulate.

The company, which employs 24, plans to soon move out of the Wyss Institute and into an office in Kendall Square, Coon said.

The Series A round was led venture capital firm NanoDimension, while other investors included Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Synthes founder Hansjörg Wyss. 

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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